When the final horn sounded in the national championship game last night, people in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium stayed right where they were. They didn't move, celebrate, or lament. Their eyes remained fixed on the court. The ball was in the air, over the three-point line and still ascending. The game wasn't over yet.
Only basketball features a sound that nominally signals the end of games but which does not truly signal the end of games. The ball had left Gordon Hayward's hands before the horn sounded, and thus the game wasn't over yet.
Every NCAA tournament should end with a game this good. At 60-55 with a little more than three minutes remaining, Duke seemed to have at last gained control of the contest. But when Butler got consecutive baskets from the previously struggling Matt Howard, it seemed that maybe that storybook everyone kept talking about was going to shove its way into the proceedings after all. Could that have been doubt we saw creeping into the Blue Devils' faces for the very first time?
(1) Duke 61, (5) Butler 59 [61 possessions]
It fell to Duke to beat Butler. It had to happen. Only two teams from outside the six major conferences have won national titles since the tournament expanded to 64 teams: Louisville in 1986, and UNLV in 1990. And Butler is not Louisville in 1986, or UNLV in 1990. The Bulldogs were trying to do something that hasn't been done. Q.E.D., someone was going to beat Butler at some point. That someone was Duke.
All year long the current Blue Devils carried the weight of previous Duke failures. There was the ugly blowout loss to Villanova in the Sweet 16 last year. There were the recent nosedives down the stretch in the regular season. Most of all there was the fact that this proud program hadn't been to the Elite Eight since 2004.
During the regular season I certainly didn't regard Duke as a prohibitive favorite for the national championship or anything, but I did think they were being categorized with more hindsight and expedience than accuracy. After all, this team did lay waste to the ACC this year. I, like everyone else, had named Kansas as my preseason favorite to win it all, but the Jayhawks' defense didn't turn out to be as good as I thought it would be. And Kentucky will obviously dominate this summer's NBA draft more than any other single team, but to my eyes UK was always a lot like Kansas last year: An undeniably talented team that would meet its fate in the Sweet 16. (Turned out I was a round off.) So I had Duke up there on the same level as Kansas more or less, but I realize there were times when it seemed like even I had to talk myself into it.
We now know that one source of the confusion was Brian Zoubek, a poster child for sowing confusion. Even in the NCAA tournament, when announcers spoke of an "emerging" Duke player they were talking about Nolan Smith. Apparently people just could not wrap their heads around the idea that Zoubek was a) no longer in automatic and perpetual foul trouble, and b) the functional rebounding equivalent of DeMarcus Cousins on both ends of the floor during the tournament. Butler arrived in the championship game because they'd been able to keep the likes of Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State from rebounding their own misses. Last night the Bulldogs held Duke in check in the first half, but for the game Zoubek did get six offensive boards in 31 minutes.
In fact, Duke won this game because they scored a point per trip. That's low by Blue Devil standards, but it was easily the best mark any offense was able to muster against the Butler D in the tournament. (Previous record: Syracuse scored 0.92 points per possession in the Sweet 16.) A combination of Ronald Nored being in some foul trouble, the multiple scoring threats at the command of Mike Krzyzewski, and the aforementioned Mr. Zoubek proved enough, barely, for the Blue Devils to outscore Butler (who by the way was remarkably consistent on offense in rounds two through six, scoring between 0.90 and 0.98 points per trip every time).
Kyle Singler in particular was effective, hitting shots from both sides of the arc and leading all scorers with 19 points. On a night when Duke was held to 5-of-17 shooting on their threes, Singler was 3-of-6 beyond the arc and often got his open look with a quick release.
The ACC now has back-to-back titles, which is ironic because we didn't hear anything about the league this year. In fact they lost their first ever ACC-Big Ten Challenge this season. I don't suppose the 2009-10 ACC was historically mighty or anything, but next year please remember that all talk of conference strength has a highly tenuous relationship to what occurs in late March and early April.
After all, look at Butler. The Horizon League wouldn't have won any awards for "top to bottom" toughness this season. And yet it will always be within the power of any mid-major to imagine themselves just as Butler was: Inbounding the ball under your own basket, down by one with 13 seconds left in the national championship game.
On their first try inbounding the ball, Hayward had to call timeout, whereupon Brad Stevens had Howard inbound the ball to Hayward at the top of the key. Hayward drove right and launched a fadeaway 12-footer over Zoubek that was on-line to drop but instead bounced off the back rim. Zoubek grabbed the rebound and was promptly fouled. With three seconds left he made the first and intentionally missed the second, setting up Hayward's near-miss from half-court at the buzzer.
Reaching that point required so many improbable occurrences, whether it was ten points from Avery Jukes, or Howard hitting consecutive shots after missing so many good looks over the course of two games in Indy, or even Zach Hahn hitting his first three in forever. By that point a half-court shot going swish wouldn't have seemed the slightest bit improbable.
That being said, I have it on good authority that Stevens' first order of business in the offseason will be to force the NCAA to paint that no-charge semi-circle on the floor. Turns out Butler could have used the two points they should have had on the "charge" called against Hayward that was drawn by Jon Scheyer, who was located almost directly under the basket.
Getting some more paint on the floor won't be the only thing Stevens has changed. If you were sentient as a basketball fan in 2009-10 you should henceforth be much more hesitant to dismiss a team on the basis of "Who've they played?" Butler didn't get to play anyone worthy of an at-large bid in the Horizon League, but they did go undefeated in league play. And in the Horizon League tournament. And in the first five rounds of the NCAA tournament. They accomplished that last feat by being demonstrably better than teams with many more advantages than those possessed by the Bulldogs.
I've just written an entire recap of the national championship game without once referencing a certain movie, and that was deliberate. Butler should be seen ex nihilo, not as conforming to a cherished tale but as a needed burst of mayhem amidst the settled orderliness of our expectations. Between the time the final horn sounded and the instant Hayward's shot rimmed out, much of the world outside of Durham, NC, was living life the way mid-majors have always lived it, with a peculiar mix of morbid realism, determination, anticipation, and hope. And that's no movie.
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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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